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Best National Parks in California

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California is fortunate to be home to nine national parks--more than any other state in the U.S.--and five national monuments. It could take a lifetime to explore all that national park service has to offer in the Golden State. But most people have limited time, so I’ve asked several travel bloggers to identify the best national parks in California. Based on where you’ll be visiting and how much time you have, we hope to help you plan a successful trip to one of these American treasures.

View of the ocean along the Potato Harbor Overlook Trail on Santa Cruz Island

View of the ocean along the Potato Harbor Overlook Trail on Santa Cruz Island

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park is located off the coast of California, about a one hour ferry ride from Ventura or Oxnard Harbors. Comprised of five islands; Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, San Miguel and Santa Rosa, this is among the least visited national parks in the U.S. And while it definitely takes some planning to get here, the reward is worth it. 

In addition to the land being protected by the National Park Service, the ocean waters surrounding the islands are a National Marine Sanctuary. As a result, the opportunities to enjoy marine life are excellent and visitors should spend some time in the water either kayaking, snorkeling or diving. In these waters whales and dolphins are commonly seen, as are garibaldi, sea stars, sea urchins, and harbor seals. Several species of birds use these islands to nest adding to the rich array of wildlife to be viewed.

Hiking is among the most popular activities with trails available on all the islands. Distances and levels of difficulty vary, so consult with the volunteers at the Visitors Center in Ventura Harbor for maps and guidance.

The ferry to Channel Island National Park should be reserved in advance through Island Packers. There are no services on the islands so be sure to bring all food and water needed for the day, and to bring trash back to the mainland. Primitive camping is also available and can be reserved through the National Park Services website.

A Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park California

Joshua Tree National Park, photo by Taylor Record

Joshua Tree National Park

Shared by Taylor of Travel Outlandish

Chola Cactus, desert homesteads, and of course, the Joshua Tree with sharp leaves and upward-reaching, gnarled branches. These are some of the things you'll find in Joshua Tree, and the things that make this journey into the middle of nowhere in the Mojave Desert well worth it.

Get there early or sleep beneath the stars to experience the park in all of its silent splendor. While there are a few designated walking trails like the Hidden Valley Nature Trail, the best way to explore Joshua Tree National Park is to scramble over some of its large rock formations. You can also tour Keys Ranch, one of the early homesteads in the incredibly inhospitable desert where Bill Keys managed to live for more than 60 years. And perhaps most unusually, you can see massive junk installations against a desert backdrop at Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Desert Art Museum.

Shop Amazon for a books about the National Parks of California.

Pinnnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park, photo by Chris Christensen

Pinnacle National Park

Shared by Chris Christensen of Amateur Traveler

The newest of the California National Parks is Pinnacles National Park in Monterey County in the Central Coast of California. Pinnacles was a National Monument (created by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908) but was redesignated a National Park in 2012 by an act of Congress. The park is mostly known for its hiking which is best not in the heat of the summer. The park has as west entrance near Solodad and a east entrance  south of Hollister. It only takes a bit over an hour to walk from the Chaparral trailhead parking in the west to the Old Pinnacles trailhead parking in the east but takes about the same amount of time to drive there as you have to drive all the way around the park. So practically you have to choose one side or the other to visit.

Pinnacles is what remains from an ancient volcano so it has interesting rock formations that attract climbers. It also has a series of caves where large boulders fell into narrow chasms. It was these caves that I particularly enjoyed when we visited the park when I was a kid. Bring a flashlight to explore the caves. Some of the caves will flood with the winter rains so they are easier to visit in late spring, summer or early fall as this region of California basically gets no rain from May to October.

Muir Woods National Monument, photo by Nicolette Kay

Muir Woods National Monument

Shared by Nicolette Kay of Semi-Budget Travel

Muir Woods National Monument is approximately 10 miles northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It is, however, a world away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. Muir Woods is a beautiful old-growth coast redwood forest. It offers 6 miles of trails, including 30-minute, 60-minute, and 90-minute loops. Most trails are asphalted or boardwalked, and they are fairly flat. If you walk the 60-minute loop or beyond, you will encounter the Cathedral Grove. Signs are posted instructing you to “enter quietly.” Enjoy the peaceful sounds of the rustling leaves and rippling stream. Breathe in the stillness as you look up at the majestic redwoods.

Muir Woods also participates in the Junior Ranger program. Kids will receive a booklet with activities to complete as they explore the forest. Upon returning to the visitor center, seek out a ranger to receive your badge. The ranger on duty during our visit spent a good amount of time with our kids, asking questions about what they learned and conversing about the monument.

Note: Parking and shuttle reservations are now required at Muir Woods National Monument. Don't make the drive to Muir Woods before making your reservation ahead of time. Cell phone service and WiFi are virtually non-existent around Muir Woods, so download your reservation or shuttle ticket in advance.

Golden Gate Bridge, photo by Jenn and Ed Coleman

The Presidio

Shared by Jenn and Ed Coleman of Coleman Concierge

Long before the Golden Gate Bridge, the Presidio guarded the mouth of the San Francisco Bay. The Spanish first established the fortifications in 1776, and for the next two centuries, the strategic highland remained under continuous patrol. The Presidio kept America's most significant natural harbor safe with Civil War-era forts at the base of Golden Gate Bridge to batteries carved into the hillside for WWII.

Now the watch has ended, and the National Park Service and the Presidio Trust manage the 1,480 acre park. It's a green space that runs from the batteries to the bluff. Hike the Land's End Trail to see waves march in from the Pacific (with no Japanese U-Boats in sight) or take the Battery Trail down to Torpedo Wharf. These trails are a perfect combination of nature, history, and urban scenery.

The Presidio is on every San Francisco tour because it's the gateway to the Golden Gate Bridge. You get the iconic view of Golden Gate. You can even cross the bridge by bike or foot and feel how it sways ever so gently in the wind.

The scenic hikes offer outstanding views of, not only the bridge but all of San Francisco Bay. Presidio Park is perfect for people who like to walk in nature but see the city. 

Giant Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park, photo by James of Travel Collecting

Sequoia National Park

Shared by James of Travel Collecting

Sequoias are the largest variety of trees on earth.  Redwoods can get taller, but for overall size, including height and girth, sequoias win out.  They don’t grow in many places, but Sequoia National Park and the adjacent Kings Canyon National Park have several groves.  These include the largest single trees in existence.

Sequoias are enormous and their size is truly awe-inspiring.  The largest tree of all – the General Sherman Tree – is a short walk from a parking lot along a paved path.  From there, the Congress Trail is another easy trail that continues past some pine trees and on to several other sequoia trees that have been given names.  There are two small groves called the Senate and the House, as well as individual trees like President’s Tree and Chief Sequoya Tree (read all about Congress Trail here).

The nearby Giant Forest Museum has simple but interesting displays on how sequoias grow.  Down the hill a short walk is a large round meadow surrounded by the Big Trees Trail with more giant trees.  This is also a great spot for wildlife viewing early in the morning and at dusk.  It is not uncommon for black bears to come out pf the woods to forage in the meadow.  Obvious caution should be exercised.  Sequoia National Park will leave you admiring how incredible nature can be!

Shop Amazon for guides to the U.S. National Parks.

Cabrillo National Monument

Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument, photo by Dhara

Cabrillo National Monument

Shared by Dhara of It's Not About The Miles

If you like visiting US national parks and monuments, you have a lot of choice in California! One of the most interesting national monuments to visit in the Golden State is the Cabrillo National Monument in sunny San Diego.

The monument is located at the tip of the Point Loma Peninsula, just a few minutes drive from downtown San Diego. There are lots of things to do at Cabrillo National Monument, especially if you enjoy the outdoors.

From the viewing deck outside the Visitor Center, you can see Ballast Point. Here's where the first European expedition that set out to explore the US West Coast landed, in September 1542. The expedition was led by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, after whom the monument is named.

The monument features educational information and a movie at the Visitor Center, several beautiful hiking trails, and some of the best tide pooling in San Diego. To take advantage of the tide pooling opportunities, you should visit in the winter.

Of course, the Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo monument is a must-see in the park. The original sandstone statue was gifted to the US by the Portuguese government. The current statue is a limestone replica, and is 14 feet tall.

If you walk around the park, you get fabulous views of the Pacific Ocean and the San Diego Bay, as well as the city skyline across the water. It's a great way to spend a morning or afternoon in San Diego!

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Devil's Postpile National Monument

Devil's Postpile National Monument near Yosemite

Devil’s Postpile National Monument

Located in the Eastern Sierras, next to Yosemite National Park, Devil’s Postpile is a unique and rare basalt rock formation that appears to be giant stone pillars rising from the earth. Included in this national monument is the 101-foot tall Rainbow Falls. Combined, these two natural features offer plenty to do for a great day-trip.

A few hikes are offered including the short, Devil’s Postpile trail. Visitors should definitely add on the .25 mile hike to the top of the monument to see the unique honeycomb effect formed at the top of the basalt formation. The most popular hike in the area is to Rainbow Falls which is 2.5 miles each way and makes for a lovely picnic spot. Fishing for wild trout is permitted within the monument grounds and visitors are allowed to keep up to five fish.

To minimize the environmental impact, cars of one day visitors are not allowed in Devil’s Postpile. Instead, shuttles are available in Mammoth Lakes. The cost of the shuttle is $8 per person roundtrip. Campers are allowed to drive their vehicles into the area.

Need accommodations near a national park? Check rates and availability on Booking.com.

Alcatraz Island, a National Historic Landmark

Alcatraz Island, Photo by Alexa Meisler

Alcatraz Island

Shared by Alexa Meisler of 52 Perfect Days

Alcatraz is one of the most notorious federal penitentiaries in U.S history and today it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco. The former prison once housed such legendary criminals as Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun Kelly” Barnes, the “Birdman” Robert Stroud and many more.

The prison closed on March 21, 1963 and the National Park Service opened Alcatraz to the public for the first time in October 1973 and it received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.

Alcatraz is perched on a rocky island in the San Francisco Bay and more than one million people a year take the ferry to what was once home to some of America’s most notorious criminals.

Upon arriving, an officer greets the boat and shares a bit of the history of the island. From there, you can tour the island and prison on your own or with the award-winning audio presentation “Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour”. The Cellhouse audio tour begins in the shower area of the prison and the guides you throughout the entire prison. The stories are told by former inmates and prison guards.

Tip: Purchase your tickets ahead of time, as there are a limited amount of daily visitors that can visit on the island. They can even have season sellouts, which tends to happen in the summer months. A valid Government photo ID is required for every person that enters Alcatraz.

Yosemite National Park, Photo by Catherine Swartz D'Cruz

Yosemite National Park

Shared by Catherine Swartz D'Cruz of We Go With Kids

Yosemite National Park is definitely one of the best national parks in California.  This park gained popularity through Ansel Adams' famous black and white photographs.

Our family spent two nights visiting Yosemite with kids several years ago during the fall.  Although it was the low season, the weather was perfect - not to hot and not to cold.  The drive from the front gate to Yosemite Village was longer than we expected, but the views along the way were some of our favorites. We stopped just past the Wawona Tunnel to get a closer look at the exquisite panorama of El Capitan and Half Dome.  This was the perfect backdrop for our Christmas card picture.

Hiking is a popular family activity in Yosemite. With two young boys, we opted for easier hikes to Bridalveil Falls and Mirror Lake.  Our kids participated in a Junior Ranger program and earned their badges.  We finished off the day watching the sunset over Half Dome from Glacier Point.

The next morning, we visited the giant sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove near Yosemite's entrance.  "Giant" is truly an understatement as these trees can reach over 300 feet tall and 25 feet in diameter.  We highly recommend a trip to Yosemite.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park, Photo by Wendy Lee

Death Valley National Park

The desert terrain of Death Valley National Park comprises the hottest, driest and lowest national park in the United States. This may not sound appealing at first, but a closer look is needed. The geology of Death Valley offers some of the most unique scenery anywhere in the world. From Zabriskie Point to Artists Palette and Badwater Basin to Devil’s Golf Course, this place is unlike any other national park.

One of the most popular activities in the park is hiking. There are dozens of trails for hikers of all experience levels. Our personal favorite is Golden Canyon, which might just be one of the best hikes in California. Due to the dryness and heat of this park it’s imperative to bring plenty of water for all activities, especially hiking.

For non-hikers, just driving through the park and appreciating all the scenic outlooks is quite enjoyable. For photographers, Death Valley offers amazing views at sunrise and sunset.

Accommodations in the park include hotels and campgrounds. The main Visitor’s Center is located at Furnace Creek and is an ideal place to learn more about the park or get some guidance on hiking trails.

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27 Comments

  1. I love this post. We have been to a few of these parks on our last trip to the US but so many still to see.

    1. So glad you enjoyed the post! And I still have many parks to see as well. We are fortunate to have so many in U.S.

  2. I loved Sequoia National Park. We camped in Kings Canyon many years ago, when the river was raging and there were butterflies everywhere. It was a memorable trip and difficult to picture the majesty of the giant sequoia until you see them for yourself.

    1. Isn’t Sequoia incredible? I haven’t been back for a few years, but hope to do so soon–and would love to see butterflies everywhere as you did.

  3. I would love love love to see Joshua Tree, it has been a dream of mine since I was a kid. Some might say iots not all that, but I just love the trees 😀

    1. I’m going to Joshua Tree this weekend for the first time and can’t wait. I think visitors have to realize they are in a desert setting which is quite different than a place like Yosemite. But I’ll let you know what I think.

  4. Very informative post with beautiful pictures! I heard so much about Yosemite National Park, would love to go! This is a great resource for anyone debating which national park to visit in California.

    1. I highly recommend Yosemite! But quite frankly, its hard to go wrong with any national parks in California.

  5. California is truly blessed! I lived in the Bay Area for close to 30 years so I’ve had the opportunity to visit all of these except for Pinnacles which I am trying to cross off my list next year before I move to the East Coast (I am in Phoenix at the moment) – I recommend any of these spots – they are all beautiful!

    1. You’ll need to start visiting all the amazing national parks and monuments on the East Coast–what an adventure to look forward to!

  6. This is great as so many of these parks are on my list to visit & so far the only one I have seen is Alcatraz…about 3 times! I have loved it each time but am excited to see much more of what the State has to offer in the future. Thank you!

    1. Isn’t Alcatraz awesome? But we do have so many other great national parks and monuments in California.

  7. I have lived in CA my entire life, and so many of my favorite places are on this list! I haven’t been to Channel Islands National Park yet though. I would love to make it there in 2020!

    1. I’ve lived in California for over 30 years and only recently visited Channel Islands NP. And most of my friends and family had never been there either. It takes a bit of planning to get there, but so worth it–hope you’ll get to go in 2020.

  8. I can’t believe I have never been to any of these amazing parks. I can see that I will have to come over to California and have a tour around

    1. Please do come to California! Despite living here for over 30 years I still have so many things to see and do in this state.

  9. This is a great roundup post! I live near the Cabrillo lighthouse, and I recently toured Alcatraz. I haven’t made it to the Devil’s Postpile but I would love to go someday!

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  10. Such a great list. We have been able to explore three of these so far but Joshua Tree is especially high on my must see list.

    1. We just visited Joshua Tree for ourselves this past weekend. I highly recommend it! Great for hiking and rock scrambling.

  11. I haven’t been to California yet, but I see I must plan a longer trip and include several parks from your list. Alcatraz is a must as well. Thanks for the info.

    1. Alcatraz was even better than I expected. There are so many stories to be told on that one small island. Hope you get to visit California soon!

  12. Wow, I never realised California had so many parks. What a great guide! Planning a California road trip for next year and this is just what I’m looking for.

    1. I’m so excited for you! A road trip is a great way to explore California. Enjoy!

  13. Wonderful list of places to visit in California. I keep coming back to these places all the time. If you were to ask me, which one is your favorite, I would not know how to answer. All great!

    1. Thanks Anna! All of these parks and monuments could be explored many times since there is just so much to do in each place.

  14. It’s amazing that California has 9 National Parks!!! I really like this post, great overview of the California parks, and great tips for visiting them. We’ve been wanting to get to Channel Islands for years and I’ll definitely heed the warning about the ferry and no services. We are also looking to visit one of the ‘big tree parks’ so I’ll be back to re-read the overviews of those as well! Thanks!

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